Friday, 27 July 2012

Education system fails on Maths and Computer Science

The Lords Committee report on STEM skills in higher education was published this week, with worrying findings on the teaching of Mathematics and Computer Science.  The Labour Party should seize on these statistics and articulate and clearer vision and more fundamental vision for technology and hi-tech skills.    

Without a doubt STEM postgraduates play an important role in driving economic growth by innovation, research and entrepreneurship. It is difficult to see how the UK will  drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries without more graduates.

The Committee confirmed that many students starting STEM degrees, even those with A-level maths qualifications, lack the maths required to undertake studies in subjects such as engineering and physics and are having to take remedial courses. The lack of key skills extends from too few young people studying maths beyond GCSE to too few students taking postgraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, computer science and maths subjects. 

Moreover, the rising number of graduates in “soft sciences” e.g. forensic and sport science have soared and that these graduates are less employable than those with degrees in more traditional sciences.

The Committee recommends that Maths should be compulsory for all students post-16 - a rec very unlikely to be achieved without massive investment in teachers, and support for schools.

Source:  Department for Education January 2012
('x' denotes data suppressed, but less than 5)
The report also has some findings about on Computer Science.  Over the past decade the number of UK-origin students studying computer science at undergraduate level has dropped by 27% between 2002-03 and 2009-10 (see p. 28).  This is the biggest drop in all STEM subjects.

The worrying drop is unsurprising considering the extremely low level of entries to Computing A-level in our schools.  The chart on the left shows the number of students choosing to do Computing A-level (as of yet there is no such things as Computer Science) in London, a city considered to be a global leader in digital economy - compared to total A-levels taken. 

The 'digital corridor' between Westminster (Soho)-Camden (King's Cross)-Islington-Hackney, home to 'Tech City' and world-leading universities, advertising firms, visual effects, film, music and video games companies, straddles London boroughs in which there are currently only 15 students studying Computing A-level.

This is the same number as Southend.  

The DfE figures from across the country are also poor.  

A combination of factors are at play here:

- At GCSE the ICT curriculum currently (until September 2012) taught  focuses almost entirely on office skills, is a turn off to those who want to know how computer actually work.

- London schools currently lack enough qualified teachers to teach even the existing ICT courses, let alone a new Computer Science course.  Only 29% of teachers are qualified to teach ICT today in inner London schools and 45% in outer London.  As with Maths teachers, the lure of high paid jobs in Finance depresses the numbers of teachers each year. 
- There are also serious questions about whether current computing courses are rigorous or adaptable enough.

- The fragmented nature of London education means that each academy and each of the 32 boroughs will have a different approach - or no approach at all.   

Both a cause and effect - there is also a massive gender divide - as with all 'STEM subjects' - nationally only 7% (241) of Computing A-level students are girls.

Previous to the Lords report, the assumption was that students were being advised to study Maths A-level, not Computing.  Yet the report shocking shows that only 39% of Computer Science HE students studied Maths at A-level (Fig 1, p23) – compared with 98% of Physics students. We probably need to question the rigour of ‘Computer Science’ at UK universities as well.

A proper, unified strategy is needed here: from primary school, through universities to the world of work.  Labour must devote resources to teacher training and foster an environment where schools link up with local employers far more than they do now.   

We must also make sure that these skills are open to all, to help state maintained schools get kids from all backgrounds – and both sexes - into the jobs of the future.

Leaving it to the market won't solve this problem, nor will solutions come overnight - but a strategy that sets benchmarks on achievement for 5, 10 and 15 years could reverse this trend - are we up for it?

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